Medical Research

How to conduct research as a medical student

This article will address how to conduct research as a medical student, including details on different types of research, how to go about constructing an idea and other practical advice.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

In addition to good grades, test performance, and notable characteristics, it is becoming increasingly important for medical students to participate in and publish research. Residency programs appreciate seeing that applicants are interested in improving the treatment landscape of medicine through the scientific method.

Many medical students also recognize that research is important. However, not all schools emphasize student participation in research or have associations with research labs. These factors, among others, often leave students wanting to do research but unsure of how to begin. This article will address how to conduct research as a medical student, including details on different types of research, how to go about constructing an idea, and other practical advice.

Types of research commonly conducted by medical students

This is not a comprehensive list, but rather, a starting point.

Case reports and case series

Case reports are detailed reports of the clinical course of an individual patient. They usually describe an unusual or novel occurrence or provide new evidence related to a specific pathological entity and its treatment. Advantages of case reports include a relatively fast timeline and little to no need for funding. A disadvantage, though, is that these contribute the most basic and least powerful scientific evidence and provide researchers with minimal exposure to the scientific process.

Case series, on the other hand, look at multiple patients retrospectively. In addition, statistical calculations can be performed to achieve significant conclusions, rendering these studies great for medical students to complete to get a full educational experience.

Clinical research

Clinical research is the peak of evidence-based medical research. Standard study designs include case-controlled trials, cohort studies or survey-based research. Clinical research requires IRB review, strict protocols and large sample sizes, thus requiring dedicated time and often funding. These can serve as barriers for medical students wanting to conduct this type of research. Be aware that the AOA offers students funding for certain research projects; you can learn more here. This year’s application window has closed, but you can always plan ahead and apply for the next grant cycle.

The advantages of clinical research include making a significant contribution to the body of medical knowledge and obtaining an understanding of what it takes to conduct clinical research. Some students take a dedicated research year to gain experience in this area.

Review articles

A literature review is a collection and summarization of literature on an unresolved, controversial or novel topic. There are different categories of reviews, including meta-analyses, systematic reviews and traditional literature reviews, offering very high, high and modest evidentiary value, respectively. Advantages of review articles include the possibility of remote collaboration and developing expertise on the subject matter. Disadvantages can include the time needed to complete the review and the difficulty of publishing this type of research.

Forming an idea

Research can be inspiring and intellectually stimulating or somewhat painful and dull. It’s helpful to first find an area of medicine in which you are interested and willing to invest time and energy. Then, search for research opportunities in this area. Doing so will make the research process more exciting and will motivate you to perform your best work. It will also demonstrate your commitment to your field of interest.

Think carefully before saying yes to studies that are too far outside your interests. Having completed research on a topic about which you are passionate will make it easier to recount your experience with enthusiasm and understanding in interviews. One way to refine your idea is by reading a recent literature review on your topic, which typically identifies gaps in current knowledge that need further investigation.

Finding a mentor

As medical students, we cannot be the primary investigator on certain types of research studies. So, you will need a mentor such as a DO, MD or PhD. If a professor approaches you about a research study, say yes if it’s something you can commit to and find interesting.

More commonly, however, students will need to approach a professor about starting a project. Asking a professor if they have research you can join is helpful, but approaching them with a well-thought-out idea is far better. Select a mentor whose area of interest aligns with that of your project. If they seem to think your idea has potential, ask them to mentor you. If they do not like your idea, it might open up an intellectual exchange that will refine your thinking. If you proceed with your idea, show initiative by completing the tasks they give you quickly, demonstrating that you are committed to the project.

Writing and publishing

Writing and publishing are essential components of the scientific process. Citation managers such as Zotero, Mendeley, and Connected Papers are free resources for keeping track of literature. Write using current scientific writing standards. If you are targeting a particular journal, you can look up their guidelines for writing and referencing. Writing is a team effort.

When it comes time to publish your work, consult with your mentor about publication. They may or may not be aware of an appropriate journal. If they’re not, Jane, the journal/author name estimator, is a free resource to start narrowing down your journal search. Beware of predatory publishing practices and aim to submit to verifiable publications indexed on vetted databases such as PubMed.

One great option for the osteopathic profession is the AOA’s Journal of Osteopathic Medicine (JOM). Learn more about submitting to JOM here.

My experience

As a second-year osteopathic medical student interested in surgery, my goal is to apply to residency with a solid research foundation. I genuinely enjoy research, and I am a member of my institution’s physician-scientist co-curricular track. With the help of amazing mentors and co-authors, I have been able to publish a literature review and a case-series study in medical school. I currently have some additional projects in the pipeline as well.

My board exams are fast approaching, so I will soon have to adjust the time I am currently committing to research. Once boards are done, though, you can bet I will be back on the research grind! I am so happy to be on this journey with all my peers and colleagues in medicine. Research is a great way to advance our profession and improve patient care.

 Keys to success

Research is a team effort. Strive to be a team player who communicates often and goes above and beyond to make the project a success. Be a finisher. Avoid joining a project if you are not fully committed, and employ resiliency to overcome failure along the way. Treat research not as a passive process, but as an active use of your intellectual capability. Push yourself to problem-solve and discover. You never know how big of an impact you might make.


Human subject-based research always requires authorization and institutional review before beginning. Be sure to follow your institution’s rules before engaging in any type of research.

This column was written from the perspective from a current medical student with the review and input from my COM’s director of research and scholarly activity, Amanda Brooks, PhD. 

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